Thursday, March 20, 2014

ONCE AGAIN, GREED IS THE TOP SEED

These days, whenever an athletic director, school president or conference commissioner begins talking about the state of college athletics, he should finish his comments by saying, “I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your bartenders and waitresses. And try the veal.”

It’s a comedy routine these days for the people in charge of big-time football and basketball, as they try to convince the audience that any strides made by athletes will ruin the integrity of their “amateur” pursuits, all the while accepting colossal bags of money from TV networks, sponsors and boosters that help finance successful (they hope) programs designed to promote the schools. Any time a player dares to suggest that the situation is not equitable, fat-cat administrators fall back on the myth that college sports are somehow pure.

Take Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose conference will bestow as much as $40 million on each of its members by 2017, thanks to gargantuan TV contracts. Earlier this week, he was quoted by espn.com’s Ivan Maisel in an article that heralded how prepared Delany is for the upcoming changes in college athletics, i.e. even more bags of dough arriving, courtesy of the new football “playoff”. Delany was responding to the outlandish idea that athletes should have a say in what happens to them and the recent news that some are attempting to form a union to guarantee full scholarship benefits and the right to negotiate with ADs and presidents regarding working conditions. Threatened with the loss of some of that TV and playoff lucre, Delany invoked the time-honored image of Biff’s sitting in the malt shop, wearing his letter sweater, a stack of books next to his milkshake, and an adoring Suzie sitting across from him, wondering how life could get any better.

“What I’m confident about is that the more collegiate we are, the more sustainable we are,” he said. “The less collegiate we are, the more I think the environment we are in is going to be challenged.”

Go Team!

There must be some kind of handbook distributed among college administrators containing that shameless treacle. Unfortunately, many fans hear Delany and nod their heads, thinking he is championing the old-fashioned ways of college sports. Were Delany’s words to be accompanied by a close-captioned translation, they might read a little differently.

“What I’m confident about is that the more we continue to rake in the big bucks through the same channels that professional sports leagues do, we’ll be all right. As soon as we let the athletes have any of the dough or some sort of say in how we do business, we’re screwed.”

Delany’s comments are particularly trenchant as the NC2A basketball tourney cranks to life. (Yeah, El Hombre knows it started Tuesday night, but the pigtail games don’t count.) Fans of the three-week festival of hoops had better spend every minute possible with it over the next few years, because there can be no doubt it’s going to change at some point. Once the big schools decide that they are done sharing any of their collegiate sustainability with smaller institutions, they are going to secede from the NC2A and form their own money-printing enterprise. Once that happens, the tournament will no longer be the wild and crazy ride it has been.

Ask yourself this question: Would you rather see a first-round (El Hombre refuses to call the Thursday/Friday games “second round” contests) matchup between North Dakota State and Oklahoma or one between Mississippi State and Clemson? You want the big underdog from a state where high school ball is still played on dirt courts, and citizens still point excitedly at airplanes when they fly overhead, not the boring meeting of name brands. Once the fat cats break away, those fun days will be over. Good-bye to Valpo, Dunk City and Lehigh. Say hello to drab contests between mediocre big boys. The East, Midwest, South and West regions will be renamed Greed, Avarice, Lust and Plunder. And a wonderful event will be ruined forever.

Enjoy it while you can, folks. Because collegiate sustainability will certainly prevail in the long run. The difference between now and then will be that athletes and fans will be abused once the separation occurs.

With all of that in mind, and the pigtail games out of the way, here is a primer on the 2014 tournament:

The Whining Whiner Whines: When he isn’t looking like he just bit into Charles Barkley’s shoe or ripping into refs whenever the camera isn’t trained on him, Duke coach Mike Disingenuous likes to crusade for truth and justice in college basketball – or at least pursue his evil agenda. His latest shots were directed at the Atlantic 10, which somehow cast a wicked spell over the Selection Committee and secured six spots in the tournament. Coach D was upset that those schools didn’t go through the “meat grinder” that ACC teams did. He has a point, since nothing is tougher than two games a season against Virginia Tech and Boston College. Wouldn’t it be nice if Coach D spent a season simply directing his team, rather than burdening us with his pursuit of publicity and self-aggrandizement?

Mr. Dangerfield: You have to love Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has somehow made his team into a maligned underdog, despite its 34-0 record and number one seed. Had the Shockers zipped through the season unbeaten and been seeded fifth, Marshall would have a case. Just because some people wonder whether you would have stayed pristine if you played in the Big Ten or Pac-12 doesn’t mean you have to jump on the same disrespect train that every team and athlete rides. Play the games. Win the games. And stop looking for artificial means of motivation. If your players aren’t ready to play by now, they don’t have a shot.

Wild West: If you’re looking for the bracket most likely to be blown up like someone voting against Crimean secession, check out the West. Arizona is fun to watch, but the Wildcats don’t shoot it that well from behind the arc and don’t hit their free throws at the highest rate. Wisconsin is fun to watch offensively, but the Badgers don’t D up like they usually do. Creighton was made to look quite ordinary by Providence in the Big East final, and the last time we saw San Diego State, it was part of a poster series for Dunk City. Don’t be surprised if Baylor or Oregon comes out of this region.

Paging Big Pink: Nothing is more fun in the first couple rounds than big upsets – unless you’re on the losing side. The Big Names had better keep some Pepto on hand, in case disaster strikes. Here are some Thursday/Friday surprises: Stephen F. Austin over Virginia Commonwealth; North Dakota State over Oklahoma; Providence over North Carolina; Louisiana over Creighton; Tennessee over UMass.

Finally: And your Final Four: Florida, Michigan State, Arizona, Duke. Championship game: Florida 74, Duke 71.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Reports are that Houston and Chicago are the frontrunners for the services of CarMElo Anthony, once the machine-gunning forward opts out of his Knicks contract – or new president Zenmaster Zenny tosses him to the curb. You know what that means? One of those teams isn’t going to win a title for a looooong time…Even though he issued a statement saying he is withdrawing from this weekend’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, expect Eldrick Woods to show up anyway and take some hacks, if only to show everybody how much his back hurts. Fred Couples had serious back troubles for years, but he never once gave even the slightest indication he was in pain. If Woods so much as twists the wrong way, he drops his club and grabs his back as if someone has just hit him with a nine iron. What’s that? Oh, sorry…Serial bully and equal-opportunity abuser Richie Incognito has left therapy and announced he is “ready for his next victim”, er, “anxious to get back on the football field and help a team win without berating or harassing any teammates”. Yeah, that’s it…Organizers of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are denying reports that they paid as much as a million pounds to a former FIFA vice president to secure the games in their God-forsaken pile of sand. Qatar World Cup head Louis Renault said, “I’m shocked, shocked, to learn that bribes have been paid.” Just another day in the land of FIFA, which makes the Medicis look pristine…espn announced that Chris Fowler would be replacing Brent Musburger as its lead announcer on college football broadcasts. Musburger needn’t worry. He’ll handle games on the new SEC Network and serve as a chaperone at the National Cheerleading Championships. Oh, my…A swarm of bees descended on Wednesday’s exhibition game between the Red Sox and Yankees, delaying action and leading espn to issue a press release that announced even the “insect world is fired up for baseball’s greatest rivalry”. The network then added 19 more New York-Boston games to its primetime schedule, bringing this season’s total to 112.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Since the Phillies’ cast of Old Timers isn’t likely to mount a serious charge at the NL East title, local fans will have find their drama in other places besides the standings, like by participating in a pool to see which one of the nine 35-plus players on the team gets the first endorsement deal from Celebrex. Better still, they can watch the season-long standoff between manager Ryne Sandberg and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. A 10-and-five man who has the ability to veto any trade the Phillies try to make, Rollins won’t leave town under any circumstances, and may just hunker down in the clubhouse bathroom – George Costanza-style – rather than change addresses. Rollins needs 434 plate appearances this year to vest his $11 million salary for 2015, and it will be interesting to see whether Sandberg tries to limit Rollins’ activity. With contention unlikely, that subplot will certainly be more interesting than watching Ryan Howard flail at lefthanded pitching or listening to Chase Utley’s knees decay further.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 22 in a row and probably wouldn’t warrant a five seed in the CBI tournament, but they aren’t the only NBA team committed to securing the best possible Lottery position in the June Draft. All over the league, teams have gutted their rosters in the hopes of putting the worst possible menagerie of basketball “talent” on the court every night. The result is a league bottom-heavy with pathetic franchises and a precious few clubs capable of contending seriously for a title. What’s worse is that a Draft once thought to be 10-15 deep with NBA-caliber talent doesn’t look so overwhelming anymore. Because of that, the teams that have tanked (and there’s no other word to describe what’s going on) have consigned themselves to misery for several seasons, if they emerge at all. It’s time for the NBA to enlist its best minds to find a way that ensures this kind of stuff never happens again. Get to work, folks. This must be stopped.

-EH-

Friday, February 21, 2014

Time For An (Overdue) Change

“They got a building down New York City; it's called Whitehall Street,
where you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected,
neglected and selected.”


Those of you are fans of Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant” know that the above snippet describes his take on what draftees went through during the Vietnam War. If we are to believe the song, Guthrie went through the induction process’ poking and prodding but didn’t make it to ‘Nam, thanks to an earlier arrest for littering and creating a public nuisance.

Arlo won’t be in Indianapolis this weekend for the NFL Combine, but plenty of young football hopefuls will subject themselves to a litany of physical, intellectual and emotional tests in the name of improving their draft statuses (stati?) and finding places on pro football rosters. It’s an annual rite that has grown from a low-key way for teams to get accurate information about players to a phenomenon that attracts paying attendees of questionable sanity and non-stop coverage by NFL Network. If you like to watch 320-pound men maneuvering their substantial frames around tiny orange cones, the Combine is your event.

Much of what happens in Indy is very public. We’ll learn how fast Cornerback X can run a 40 or how high Tight End Y can jump. Perhaps the most important work, however, occurs away from the cameras’ and fans’ eyes. That’s when execs interview prospects to see if they fit their teams’ cultures or have some personality traits that might prevent them from becoming productive investments. Those discussions, together with results of the Wonderlic Test and deep background checks by NFL gumshoes, create personality profiles that can raise or lower a player’s status. (Of course, sometimes fiery red flags are ignored, as in the case of Aaron “living on edge of acceptable behavior” Hernandez.)

This year, teams had better pay closer attention to what interviews and testing reveal about prospects, because the NFL world is going to be changing. Fallout from the recently concluded investigation into the Miami Dolphins locker room climate and the expected entry into the league by openly gay defensive end Michael Sam will mandate a seismic shift in player culture. For the first time, the NFL will look force teams to create workplace environments for everybody in the organization, from the most mild-mannered accounting assistant to the most ferocious linebacker. The last bastion of politically incorrect behavior and culturally approved bullying will be updated, and workplace standards that prevail everywhere else in the country will be implemented – and, El Hombre hopes – enforced.

That means racist and homophobic remarks are out – for coaches and players. It’s possible to challenge a man to be tougher without calling him names. It’s one thing to have a rookie bring donuts for his position group or sing his school’s fight song and another to gang up on him and fill his first year in the NFL with psychological trauma. This will have to be a top down process that comes from management, is enforced by the entire coaching staff and combines strict penalties with education about what is considered inappropriate behavior.

There will be inevitable pushback, just as there is when any cultural changes are implemented. We will hear about how behavior is being legislated and freedoms are being trampled. Since no other workplace environment tolerates abusive treatment of its workers, it’s hard to buy any of that. Players must learn that the 1950s (or 2000s) ways aren’t the right ways anymore – anywhere – and that includes the locker room. That shouldn’t be such a hard thing to understand for a large portion of NFL players, which is no doubt thrilled the prevailing mores from several decades ago no longer prevail.

It’s going to take a while for this change to be implemented, but we are already seeing signs that things will be different. Earlier this week, the Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill for their roles in the actions described in Ted Wells’ report on the scandal.

During a press conference Thursday at the Combine, Miami head coach Joe Philbin said, “We are going to do things about it. We are going to make it better. We are going to look at every avenue. We are going to uncover every stone, and we are going to have a better workplace. I’m going to make sure that happens.”

As Philbin (who should have had a better handle on this in the first place) and the Dolphins attempt to change the culture, we are already seeing some results of the league’s greater attention to players’ behaviors. In a Thursday article on SI.com, Chris Burke said that NFL teams are quite interested in Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan’s role in a 2009 reported sexual assault involving teammate Brendan Gibbons. Lewan allegedly directed angry comments toward the alleged victim and now must answer some tough questions. His teammate, Michael Schofield, who is also at the Combine, has been grilled about Lewan, too. It will be interesting to see if the NFL will be as willing this year to trade bad character issues for good play as it has been in the past.

There are going to be some “distractions” as the league moves forward, and some teams will be more willing to accept the necessary changes than others will. Eventually, though, the NFL will adapt, simply because the new players who enter the league will be more prepared to behave properly than were their immediate ancestors – and certainly more able than those men who played 30-40 years ago. The NFL is late on this, as it was on concussion safety and the hiring of African-American head coaches. Making the necessary transformation will require a league-wide commitment with commissioner Roger Moneybags out in front. It can be done.

It must be done.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: How about that Russian hockey team? Way to flame out in the quarters, comrades. And to do it against Finland, which has now won three straight against the Bear and hates its former oppressor with as much fervor as a Scandinavian country can muster, is particularly delicious. Alex Ovechkin and his teammates had better be on guard for cut brake lines and would be advised to hire food tasters. Maximum Leader Putin doesn’t like losing, and that figure skating gold doesn’t exactly sate his appetite for world domination…Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has vowed to slow down on the field this season and not play with such abandon. That’s good news for those who were sick last year of his over-the-top home run celebrations and other showboating in the field. Depressed espn executives have made repeated phone calls begging him to continue acting like a nitwit, the better to help SportsCenter ratings…Speaking of baseball, the Mariners have to be happy that they have invested $240 mil over the next 10 years for Robinson Cano, especially after Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long has said that Cano had a tendency to dog it by not running out routine grounders. The Seattle Mariners: they’re on the move!! Slowly…How about that NBA All-Star Game. Hard to tell what was more ridiculous, the pre-game rap-a-thon and serial crotch-grab or the game itself, which featured even more points than the Sixers surrender on a given night. The East won, when an unexpected rash of defense broke out in the final minutes, holding the final score under 170 and infuriating those who love the NBA for everything but winning basketball…Meanwhile, the NHL Olympic hiatus continuezzzzzzzz…All of the American southeast is excited for this weekend’s Daytona 500, which will be preceded by Richard Petty’s receiving a special award from NOW and a pre-race musical performance by a bunch of guys in stupid hats…CBS has announced that it is dumping Dan Marino and Mr. Ed from its NFL pre-game disaster and replacing them with Tony Gonzalez in a desperate bid to make the show not suck. Unless Gonzalez is John Madden and Mike Ditka combined, that isn’t happening…How about those new Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ helmets?! A more “menacing” skull head. A bigger flag. All the team needs now are some good players to wear them.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Any Sixers fan who came away upset after Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s Marrakesh-style trading frenzy on Thursday should be made to hand back his Julius Erving souvenir Afro wig. Hinkie may not have gained a first-round draft pick, but he did haul in a couple expiring contracts and several second-round picks while getting rid of some players who can actually help the team win some more games this year. It’s a full-on tank for the rest of the season, and it will be exciting to see what Hinkie has planned for Draft day, when he can use Thaddeus Young and his passel of picks to be the Big Player. Hats off to Hinkie. He’s doing it right so far.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: After North Carolina defeated Duke Thursday night, Tar Heels students poured onto the court to celebrate the win over Coach Disingenuous and Blue Devils. It was indeed a big win for UNC, but it’s time to establish some rules for when it’s appropriate to storm the court. First off, any time a home team knocks off Number One, the student section should empty. Second, when a huge underdog pulls a stunning upset, storm away. Finally, buzzer-beating victories over big-time rival schools can trigger an emotional response that leads to a spontaneous outpouring. That’s perhaps the best case, since it’s organic. (Or, if you will, orgasmic.) But that’s it. No more storming for beating the number 18 team. And if you have won eight straight, boast a resume with a long and deep basketball tradition and knock off the fifth-rated team in the country that happens to be your ancestral rival, stay in the stands, folks. As much fun as it is to jump around on the hardwood, you’re almost giving the rival the satisfaction of knowing you hold it in high esteem. Show some restraint and act like your team – and its predecessors – have won before.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Welcome to the big time, U.S. women’s hockey team: You choked. It was kind of the media to handle the team’s giving away a 2-0 lead in the last 3:26 of the gold-medal game gently, but the fact remains that if the men’s team were to do the same thing, it would be hammered. Sure, everybody is sad after a crushing defeat, and the emotions are raw. But this was a blown opportunity, and while Canada deserves credit for its perseverance and opportunistic play, the U.S. botched its chance. To their credit, the players made no excuses. They left that to the fawning media, which didn’t focus on the team’s inability to protect a lead in a huge game but chose instead to let us know that “sometimes it’s not meant to be”.

-EH-

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Behave Yourselves, People

On occasion, El Hombre has the chance to throw off his burden of defending truth and justice in the world of sports to become a fan. He loves cheering on the Oxford eight during The Boat Race on the Thames, and delights when the Blues dump those barbarians from Cambridge. He cherishes the opportunity to take in a few chukkas during The Season in Palm Beach. In the past few years, he has become enamored of curling and hopes that some day a team of custodians is assembled to take advantage of their inherent ability to train while working.

Ah, yes, the sporting life.

There are even times when El Hombre gets a little consumed in the proceedings, like the time he was nearly removed from the cricket grounds during the England-West Indies test match a few years back. That, however, was due to a bartender’s heavy hand with the Pimm’s. And the “Wimbledon Incident” had more to do with curdled cream on his order of strawberries than anything else.

The point is, that even the best of us can get carried away at times. Of course, that doesn’t mean bad behavior is acceptable. After last Saturday’s incident in Lubbock, it’s time to revisit the standards by which fans are allowed to behave and what steps must be taken to make sure air traffic controllers from Waco aren’t free to blather whatever they want at opposing players. The official line that has come out of the Jeff Orr/Marcus Smart dustup is that “superfan” Orr called Smart a “piece of crap.” According to a tweet from CBS Sports.com’s Doug Gottlieb, Orr texted a friend of Gottlieb’s and said that what he said “wasn’t vulgar or the N word”. If calling a college player “a piece of crap” isn’t vulgar, then our standards have changed considerably in the last several years.

(By the way, it’s not guaranteed that he didn’t use the N-word. Smart maintains Orr did say it.)

What has also changed is that fans now believe that they can say or do just about anything at games without fear of retribution. Fans aren’t tossed for screaming obscenities during games. (El Hombre remembers hearing the Penn student section chanting “F--- Princeton!” during a game at the Palestra. No effort was made to stop the profanity.) They don’t get in any trouble for getting into the faces of players and howling. Were some of this behavior repeated on the streets, the offending party might have his face flattened. Particularly unruly fans maintain that purchasing tickets entitles them to do and say pretty much whatever they want. Some boundaries remain. For instance, throwing things onto the field or court still brings an ejection. And cheering for the Milwaukee Yucks is cause for institutionalization.

Granted, the slide to increased vulgarity has been a societal issue for years. El Hombre can remember the threat of a soapy snack as punishment for using the word “suck” as a substitute for “stink” or other malodorous circumstance. Now, it’s part of the vernacular and can be heard emanating from student sections throughout games. Times have changed indeed. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t room for decorum, particularly at college games, and it’s up to the NC2A to take a stand for civility. Asking that organization to have principles about anything other than sticking it to athletes and engorging the bottom line for its member schools is risky, but in this case we must have hope.

What the NC2A must do is mandate that schools post strict guidelines regarding fan content throughout arenas and stadiums. They belong on the backs of tickets and on any material sent to season ticketholders. They should be part of the orientation process for students. And it’s a zero tolerance policy. You make an obscene gesture, and you’re gone. Take a menacing stance toward an opposing player or fan, and it’s the gate. Those ejected are placed on a list. Misbehave twice, and it’s a season ban. Three times, and you’re gone for life.

Fans should make as much noise as possible. They should jump up and down and wear silly costumes. Spend thousands at Kinko’s on those gigantic head printouts. Boo the refs when they mess up. Blow the roof off the place when an opponent is shooting a free throw. Be creative. Be persistent. But it’s time to end the practice of directing profanity and verbal abuse at the players. If schools have to hire extra personnel to enforce the code, so be it. Players shouldn’t have to worry about some bloated “super fan’s” freedom to say whatever he wants, just because he holds a ticket.

Going to a college game should be fun. And the homecourt/field advantage is important to protect. There is a difference between supporting a team and acting maliciously. Somewhere, the idea of being a good fan took an ugly turn and no longer was based on support and enthusiasm. It developed a darker side and a nasty edge. Fans who believe it is appropriate to call a college athlete a “piece of crap” (at best) to his face have lost perspective. If the NC2A has any guts, it will work to restore it.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Fantex, a San Francisco-based company, is offering fans the chance to invest in athletes’ future earnings, with a chance to profit when they surpass a certain level of income. The first equity position available is 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who has been paid $4 million up front, in exchange for 10% of his money down the road. Shares are $10 each. Next up, the entire Jacksonville Jaguars roster, which is available in the penny stock sector…Great news for all of those pesky human-rights proponents who are upset that a reported 185 Nepalese migrant workers died last year while preparing Qatar for the 2022 World Cup/Bribe-a-thon. Qatar has released a workers’ rights charter designed to make sure that only 100 workers die in 2014. Included are provisions for a 95-hour workweek, one serving of gruel (with a chunk of meat-like product included) per day and a bathroom break every 17-hour shift…Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has announced that he is retiring after the ’14 season, or however much of it his creaking body allows him to complete. New York management has already started planning his gala retirement ceremony, which will include gift bags for all female fans and a commemorative poster for men that includes photos of all the members of Maxim’s Hot 100 he has dated. Oh, yeah, there will be some baseball stuff, too…In other Yankees’ news, Alex Rodriguez has decided to drop all of his protests, lawsuits and petitions to the United Nations regarding his 162-game suspension for P.E.D. use. He does, however, plan on being the same clutch performer as always in 2015 and is seeking to negotiate a contract extension that will pay him $500 million through the end of time…Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett had some interesting things to say about his upcoming contract negotiations with the team. When asked whether he might offer the team a hometown discount, he told NFL Network, “There is no such thing as a discount. This isn’t Costco. This isn’t Walmart. This is real life.” In a related story, the Browns will now be sponsored by The Dollar Store.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies made big news Wednesday, on the eve of pitchers and catchers’ reporting officially to Clearwater. Ace lefty Cole Hamels revealed that biceps tendinitis discovered last November caused him to abbreviate his off-season throwing schedule. As a result, he won’t be able to start Opening Day. Hamels downplayed the injury and insisted he will be able to pitch in April. Given the Phillies’ history of low-balling their players’ ailments, it isn’t unrealistic to think he meant April, 2015. For now, we’ll choose to believe Hamels and hope that his troubles aren’t the beginning of a 162-game ride to the infirmary for the residents of Citizens Bank Manor. Meanwhile, the arrival of A.J. Burnett gives the Phils a proven innings eater who has started at least 30 games in each of the last five seasons. Burnett is expected to fit right in with the team, thanks to his recent success in Pittsburgh and the fact that he is 37, which will come in handy when the players head out to watch Nirvana tribute bands and argue which of the “Police Academy” sequels was the best.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Putinfest is rolling along nicely in Sochi, where dissidents have been quiet (or shackled in Krasnoyarsk), and any mistakes have been edited out or simply denied. The main casualty of the Olympic Games has been Bob Costas’ left eye, which has somehow escaped the protection accorded the ageless studio host by the decaying portrait he keeps in his attic. Due to Costas’ infection, viewers have been subjected to extra doses of Matt Lauer’s brand of milquetoast, which frankly fits in well with NBC’s homogenized prime-time coverage of the Games. That features drama first and competition second – unless, of course, there is figure skating to be shown. (Has anybody else spent considerable time looking for the bolts in Russian pairs skater Maxim Trankov’s neck?) The other stars of the Games so far have been the Norwegian curlers’ pants and the beautiful Caucasus Mountains, which look positively verdant in the high-40s temperatures that have characterized these “Winter” Games. Upcoming: the Closing Ceremonies, during which Putin will personally execute 10 protesters and strip to the waist to wrestle a bear.

-EH-

Friday, January 31, 2014

Workers of the NC2A Unite!!

When El Hombre was enjoying his university days at The Sorbonne, he and Senor Penguin would delight in imagining various scenarios in which collegiate football and basketball players could be organized into unions and exercise some influence over the NC2A. Our dream was that just before kickoff in a given year’s most important bowl game (these were the halcyon days before the BCS and the kid’s-meal-sized playoff), a representative of the two participating teams would stride to midfield and inform the referee that no one was doing anything until the players received 50% of the gate.

Next to Senor Penguin’s “One bullet” rule for basketball – more on that another time – this was our grandest college conception.

Back then, we were just dreamers.

Today, we are visionaries.

Those of you caught up in Shermania or espn’s continuing quest to make every game LeBron James plays into grand theater might have missed Tuesday’s announcement that members of Northwestern’s football team, led by former QB Kain Colter, have decided to join the United Steelworkers union. The Wildcats are seeking a spot at the Big Table and a chance to have influence over those who make the rules that impact and often define them. It was a huge step forward in the history of college athletics, and it has the potential to rock the NC2A to its core.

Despite protestations to the contrary, college athletes – particularly those who play big-time football and men’s basketball – are indeed employees of the university. They are charged with the vital job of marketing the school to the general population and with spending long hours making sure their final product is as good as it can be. All of them work hard, make significant sacrifices and are undercompensated, not to mention ruled at times with impunity and treated poorly by glory-hungry coaches. Northwestern’s move is to be applauded, and it must be more than just a symbolic gesture. Other athletes must join the cause.

Why?

As Bill Plaschke pointed out in his column Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times, this is a winnable fight. Graduate students around the country have unionized successfully and are now paid for their work as teaching assistants. They, too, are students, but they are also employees. The NC2A’s insistence that athletes’ getting paid for their efforts “undermines the purpose of college: an education” is insulting legalspeak and yet another effort by the organization to exploit the athletes’ work for its institutions’ gain. This goes back to the ‘50s, when the term “student-athlete” was coined as a way to protect schools against workers’ compensation claims made by injured players. The sham that is the NC2A’s glorification of the college experience for top-tier athletes has only grown since then. It is now a successful marketing campaign designed to fool fans and alumni into believing players are no different than the frat boy who enjoys a little touch football or IM hoops after completing his lab assignments.

The grad students’ arguments centered on the fact that they were working for the colleges and therefore had the right to negotiate salary, terms of employment, amount of time they would serve, etc. The athletes are no different. They are performing extremely important tasks for the schools they represent, and the NC2A’s attempt to classify them as “student-athletes” is disingenuous, and frankly, unethical. Members’ quests to promote themselves and increase their bottom lines – across the board, not just in the athletic department – by using teams’ performances reduces players to showmen. In return for an education that often doesn’t lead to a degree, schools reap millions.

And there are millions out there, particularly for the big boys. Hundreds of millions. Not only is the TV money getting obscene (by 2018, Big Ten schools should be getting $42 million a year from networks), but the sponsorship money is also growing. That doesn’t begin to measure the impact on the whole university, in terms of fundraising and increases in prospective students’ applications. Last year from March 21-25, views on the Florida Gulf Coast University admissions page jumped from 2,200 to 47,000, after the Eagles won a pair of NCAA tournament games. Freshman applications to the school this year have jumped 35.4%.

If the money isn’t enough to make the athletes unionize, then their lack of control over the situations in which they perform should be. Scholarships that they receive are for one year, not four, as many believe. They have little or no say on injury protocols set up by the university. (Treatment of those who sustain concussions was part of the motivation for the Northwestern move.) Athletes are often asked to dumb down their academic courses of study, the better to make them more available to their coaches. (El Hombre spoke with a prominent basketball player who changed his major from Economics to Communications, because he was having trouble doing the work and playing ball. And this was no dummy.) And, finally, the myth of athletes’ commitment to their sports stopping at 20 hours every week is folly. A survey Thursday of volleyball, softball and baseball athletes at a Division I university revealed universal agreement that they spend more than 20 hours every seven days training, practicing, meeting, studying film and playing. Just imagine what happens to a football player at an FBS school in season.

The bottom line is that athletes need an organization to protect their interests and give them a strong voice in an athletic climate that is becoming more and more professionalized every year. Here’s hoping Colter and his mates begin a trend that prevents schools from exploiting their athletes further.

And makes a couple of young students’ dreams come true.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: You have to love the huge conflict of interest that occurred this week when Jonathan Martin sat down with NBC’s Tony Dungy for an “in depth” interview about the hazing business in Miami. Martin revealed some things, but there is no way Dungy should have done the interview, since he serves on a committee for the Dolphins that is charged with looking into the incident. So much for journalism, folks. Let’s just let friends talk on camera and pass it off as illuminating. Next up, Eli Manning’s hard-hitting conversation with his brother, Peyton..Big changes are coming to NASCAR. A premium will now be placed on wins, rather than just racing sort of well. That should add lots of excitement. And officials have promised extra points in The Chase to those drivers who can somehow work endorsements from all five food groups onto their cars – while still maintaining a presence for Dr. Pepper, Goody’s Headache Powders and Piggly Wiggly…The Winter Olympics start next week, and the U.S. should win a whole bunch of medals, especially in some of the events that are debuting, such as the beerathlon, which combines ice fishing and drinking. The entire state of Minnesota is favored to medal. And watch out for Lolo Jones, who earned a spot on the women’s bobsled team, despite not being very good. She will, however, appear for two hours every day on NBC, so that the network can show America at least one athlete it may recognize – and think is hot…Cavaliers fans are upset that guard Kyrie Irving is reported to have been telling friends that he will leave Cleveland when his contract is up in a couple years. That’s no surprise, since recent play by his teammates indicates that they left town a few weeks ago. As for the fans, it’s understandable that the 6,500 that didn’t show up Tuesday to the desultory loss to New Orleans would be upset. Bye-bye, Kyrie. Enjoy Los Angeles/Brooklyn/Miami.

* * *
YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It looks as if the New York/New Jersey metroplex will be spared any gruesome weather conditions Sunday during Super Bowl 420, er, XLVIII. But that’s no reason why Philadelphia should think it has a legitimate shot at hosting a future Super day. New York was awarded this game as a reward for building the new Hoffa Mausoleum and because Roger Goodell’s office sits about 10 miles away from midfield on Park Avenue. New York is the media and advertising capital of the country, so throwing a big bash to make sponsors happy and then stuffing them into luxury boxes is good business. If it snows in New York/Jersey, that’s on the NFL. If the game is compromised by weather in Philly, it’s another black eye for the city. The Eagles can put brand new scoreboards up and talk about making a bid, but it will be a long time before the league decides to host a Super Bowl outside in a cold-weather locale again. For good reason.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: So, there’s football game on Sunday, and it’s incumbent upon El Hombre to tell you how things are going to go. In the previous 47 Super Bowls, there have been four matchups that have pitted the top offense against the top D. In three of those games, the top defense prevailed. That’s going to happen again. The Seahawks will pressure Peyton Manning and lock up his receivers long enough at the line to make the Denver passing game stall at times. On the other side, the Broncos don’t have enough to stop Marshawn Lynch on the ground, and that should make things easier for Seattle QB Russell Wilson. Still, this could come down to Manning’s getting the ball back with 1:37 on the clock and 74 yards to travel for the winning TD. If that happens, it will be legacy time. But it says here the Seahawks win. Seattle 24, Denver 20.

-EH-

Friday, January 24, 2014

SUPER BOWL GETS EXACTLY WHAT IT NEEDS

Entering last weekend, the NFL was excited to have its four best teams playing off for the spots in Hoffa Bowl I at Ice Station Zero in Da Swamps. It was hard to argue with the primacy of Denver, New England, Seattle and San Francisco, and the robust TV ratings (the AFC title game tied a 17-year high) proved that the nation was excited by the doubleheader.

But once the Super matchup was set, the league, not to mention its many propaganda partners, might have experienced a letdown, because Denver and Seattle aren’t exactly the kinds of name brands capable of generating enough heat to sustain a two-week build-up to the Big Game. Thank goodness for Richard Sherman and his carefully-packaged brand of in-your-face misbehavior. If not for the Seattle cornerback, we might have had to endure a fortnight of Peyton Manning legacy hand-wringing. Now, we get to howl about Sherman’s antics, a careful recipe of buffoonery, WWE showmanship, hip-hop danger and marketing savvy, with a dash of Clubber Lang thrown in for good measure.

INTERVIEWER: Do you hate Rocky/Michael Crabtree/Colin Kaepernick/Erin Andrews?
CLUB-SHER: No, I don’t hate [insert target here]. I pity the fool, and I will destroy any man [or female sideline reporter] who tries to take what I got!


Be prepared for a healthy dose of psychoanalysis, both of Sherman and his cartoonish outbursts, as well as those who have the temerity to criticize him. Sherman fired the first salvo, courtesy of his MMQB column on Sports Illustrated’s web site, when he explained that his shots at Crabtree after the game stemmed from an altercation last summer. Fair enough, those two men just don’t like each other. But what about the choke sign he flashed at Kaepernick? What is the justification for that? And did he need to froth when Andrews placed a microphone in his face right after the game? At a time when Sherman had a chance to make his best – and in many cases, first – impression on the American sporting public, he chose to board the crazy train.

If that’s how he wanted to behave, then that’s his right. But it is also the right of the public and the media to react negatively. There is no rule that says every bit of behavior must be embraced universally, no matter how many trophies are given out on Little League fields or how much self-esteem is built when kids don’t try their best. Sherman and his apologists hid behind the “he’s a competitor” defense, as if everybody who competes in sports, business or any other arena should be allowed to act in any way he or she wants.

Interviewer: Doctor, can you explain how you were able to remove that tricky tumor without damaging the patient’s brain?
Doctor: Listen up, fool! I am the best brain surgeon that ever lived. Don’t be brining me any sorry-ass tumors. They have no chance against me. Bow down!!!


There are hundreds of football players who must engage in controlled violence every Saturday yet have the self-control to turn down the aggression meter when the final gun sounds. The same goes for those who play other sports. Even boxers, who emerge from 12 rounds of pounding, can dial back the anger to address the media and fans. Sometimes.

Sherman chose to cultivate a personality that is mercurial. Watch his “First Take” performance with Skip Bayless for more evidence. If he expected America to wrap him in its collective arms and throw hosannas and endorsement money at him, he isn’t as smart as he – or his Stanford diploma – says he is. There is emerging in this country an expectation among those who decide to live on the margins of accepted behavior that their departures from the norm must be celebrated. Sherman wasn’t jailed or fined or harmed after his outbursts. But he was criticized. That’s how it is when you court attention. Some people aren’t going to like it. Those who are mature and experienced understand that their calculated risk has some potential downsides and are willing to pay the price to “be who they are”. Others whine and complain when their actions trigger outrage in some corners. Pay the band, Mr. Sherman. That’s how life goes. You want to be outsized, then understand that there will be detractors.

As for those who say that anyone who criticizes him is racist, consider that if we are going to have real equality in this country, then people of all colors, races, religions, genders and any other categories that I might forget must be willing to understand that they aren’t always going to be welcomed, if they act in a way that isn’t pleasing.

That doesn’t, however, spread into racism. Hate speech is the province of the small-minded. Sherman isn’t a thug. He is an aggressive player in a violent game. Anyone who tries to mask their racism with code words like “thug,” should be excoriated.

This is about how Sherman has decided to portray himself, and it will be interesting to see how Sherman proceeds, and how the Fates treat him. He could end up like Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, who mouthed off before Super Bowl I (which was actually the AFL-NFL World Championship Game) and ended up being carted off the field when a Packer laid the hammer down on him. Or, as one advertising executive put it, Sherman could be in line for “$1-3 million” annually in marketing income, should the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. Sherman’s persona, which he has put forth during his time in the league, will be analyzed every way possible during the run-up to the game. What he has to understand is that living large has its downside: everybody sees you. And not everybody has to like you.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Fox Sports producer Richie Zyontz says the network cut short Sherman’s post-game rant because “it started getting a little dangerous for us.” How so, Richie? Was it dangerous because an NFL player was about to show even more of his backside to America, something the folks at the NFL HQ on Park Avenue definitely didn’t want to see? Was interviewer Erin Andrews in danger? Was Sherman going to commandeer the microphone and launch into a WWE-style monologue? Here’s a vote for A. Fox was trying to protect its partner and chose to end a great bit of TV in order to spare the NFL a P.R. nightmare. Great journalism, guys…In other hard-hitting TV news, espn led off its overnight SportsCenter Friday with some compelling X Games footage. Granted, the story of the snowmobile rider’s victory after his brother’s tragic death was touching, but there was no other media outlet in the world that saw fit to make that its lead item. It couldn’t have been because ESPN televises, owns and is frankly populated by the only people over 35 on the planet who cares about the X Games, could it? Nahhhh…NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says the league will look into whether it is prudent to allow players to use marijuana medicinally in order to recover and gain some relief from the injuries they sustain while playing the game. Smart move, Rog. In a related story, the Jacksonville Jaguars are thinking of allowing their fans to use hallucinogens while watching games, the better to trick themselves into thinking that their team might actually have won something…Things are really heating up in the NBA Eastern Conference, where five teams are now over .500. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the Yucks are nearing mathematical elimination from the playoffs – in 2018…The NHL handed down a 15-day suspension to Vancouver coach John Tortorella after his meltdown between periods of the old-fashioned pier-six between his Canucks and Calgary. Fifteen days without regular-season hockey? Reports from British Columbia have Tortorella skipping in the streets and smiling broadly 24 hours a day…Former North Carolina football player Michael McAdoo reports that academic counselors at the school steered him toward no-show classes while he was there, countering the NC2A claim that athletes shouldn’t be paid because they are receiving a priceless education while battering their bodies for the greater (promotional) glory of old State U. Courses included Waste Management, (Daily) Numbers Theory and Statistics, Probability and The Vig. Neither Provost Corleone nor Dean Soprano could be reached for comment.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Anybody else get the feeling Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is simply messing with the fans? His latest off-season move, a back-to-the-future special with Captain Cool himself, 40-year old Bobby Abreu, is particularly cynical. Sure, it’s just a minor-league deal, but Abreu didn’t play last year, and just because he tore it up in Venezuelan winter ball, there is no reason to have him around. In Abreu’s last three seasons (2010-12) in the majors, he hit .255, 253 and .242 with a total of 31 homers, 11 of which came in the final two years. It’s as if Amaro is trying to complete some kind of aging player motif and can’t stop himself from signing old timers. His other move this week, the Chad Gaudin signing, was equally mystifying. Forget whether he can be the “swing” pitcher Amaro covets. This is a guy who pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge after allegedly groping a woman while in a Las Vegas hospital. That’s a smart move for a team in need of fans. The 2014 season is shaping up as one of the most twisted in franchise history, and things down at the Retirement Home could get truly strange before too long.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: As Uncle David Stern prepares to leave his perch as NBA commissioner for a quiet life of making sarcastic comments to friends, rather than reporters, his legacy is unquestioned. Stern built the NBA into a global juggernaut, boosted revenues considerably and presided over tremendous growth in franchise values. He brought us the Dream Team and put the league on the cusp of international expansion. But it’s funny that he is grousing about the rampant tanking going on throughout the NBA by its lesser teams, not mention the nightly gutless displays by CarMElo and the Knicks. Since Stern created the superstar-heavy promotional strategy that thrived during the past three decades, why would he be surprised that teams are fleeing from the idea of building a unit capable of winning and losing in order to draft big names they can market? CarMElo is a perfect example of this. A talented player with porcine tendencies, he has never won anything. Yet, the NBA celebrates him as a superstar, despite his petulant behavior and lack of winning pedigree. The Knicks, who are still celebrating their 1973 world championship, are the most valuable franchise in the league. So, why would other teams try to accumulate winners at the expense of big names? The league and its propaganda partners don’t glorify teams like Indiana and Portland, because they don’t have big names. Stern should be praised for his work as commissioner, and he is on the medal stand – at least – for tops in the commissioner field in all sports over the past 50 years. However, the tanking trend is his own creation, and he needs to take ownership of it.

-EH-

Thursday, January 9, 2014

IT'S TIME FOR FOOTBALL'S BIG BOYS TO TAKE CENTER STAGE

Despite all of the talk about how the NFL is a business and that its players are grown men capable of exploiting any weakness they find, it’s tough sometimes not to imagine the league as filled with kids who rode their bikes to the field after eating bowls of Cap’n Crunch and forgetting to brush their teeth.

In order to prepare his team better for Saturday’s playoff game in Seattle, New Orleans coach Sean Payton had the Seahawks’ logo painted on the Saints’ practice fields, in an attempt to “create the exact environment” his team will face in the Pacific Northwest. Given N.O.’s timid effort against the ‘Hawks in an earlier, 34-7 Monday Night loss, perhaps Payton should foregone the artwork and sprinkled testosterone powder on the turf, in the hopes the Saints would show up with a little bit of fight for Saturday’s playoff showdown.

Much has been made about the loud fans in Seattle. They broke the Guinness record for crowd noise twice during the season, which isn’t such a big deal, since that kind of uproar is replicated many times each year all over town, whenever the latte machine breaks at Starbucks. It’s curious that Seattle, a lovely city known more for its lush flora and fish-heaving merchants, is the loudest place in the NFL universe – the league’s vehement denials that concussions cause long-term brain problems notwithstanding. But Seahawks fans can indeed crank up the volume, and they fly their 12th Man flag proudly, while reveling in the illegal procedure penalties they force.

So, Payton has painted the field and will pipe in deafening crowd noise – or rebroadcasts of Jon Gruden’s MNF commentary. He might also want to set the scoreboards around the complex to 17-0, to remind the Saints about their first-quarter flop back in early December.

The NFL playoff preliminaries are over, and it’s time for the big hitters to step onto the stage. Andy Reid and his Chiefs are back in Beeftown, trying to figure out what went wrong in the second half against Indy. Green Bay is wishing its defense had as much bite against San Francisco as the icy wind that surged across the Lambeau tundra, and the Eagles are trying to manufacture some serious ire after a dream season that ended disappointingly but hardly disastrously. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the Bengals are wondering whether it’s possible to use Andy Dalton (team-record TD passes during 2013) during the regular season and somebody (anybody!) else during the playoffs (one TD, six ints. in three games).

By Sunday evening, the NFL will have found its Final Four and taken a step closer toward footballgeddon, i.e. an outdoor game in early February at Jimmy Hoffa’s crypt. There are no guarantees the game will be plagued by apocalyptic weather, but the Farmer’s Almanac predicts enough snow will fall to bury all of the five families. The league is prohibiting tailgating in the lots at Snoopy Stadium, a crushing blow to the trashcan fire industry and to those fans who prefer 19 inches of powder with their brats.

The biggest stars reside in the AFC, and just about everybody is hoping Denver and New England continue on their paths to the game Everybody Wants to See. Last year, Peyton Manning couldn’t handle his side of the deal in the Broncos’ home loss to Baltimore. This time, he gets a San Diego team that must keep winning, the better to keep its collective soul from joining Mephistopheles’ expansion franchise. Talk about lucky. A month ago, the Chargers looked ready for a housecleaning. Now, SD is on a roll. Meanwhile, the aptly named Andrew Luck and his Colts must visit Foxborough, about the only place besides Bridgeport and New Haven that spoils New England’s charm. It’s entirely appropriate that the team’s symbol is a horseshoe, although after last week’s choke-‘em-up by the Chiefs, Indy might want to add a rabbit’s foot, four-leaf clover, the number seven, the Voodoo Love Amulet and a picture of Tommy Allsup to its helmet.

The aforementioned Saints trip to Seattle heads the NFC slate, while San Francisco visits Carolina in an attempt to secure a title game date with the Seahawks and give Fox the chance to air a 30-minute retrospective on the Jim Harbaugh-Pete Carroll “What’s your deal?” feud. That might even be enough to wake up Terry Bradshaw.

Now that college football has left us, not to return for nearly eight interminable months and way too much Jim Nantz, the focus turns to the NFL. Let’s hope the remaining teams are able to fill the void with some entertaining action.

Here now the winners (As always, remember how much you paid for these picks): Seattle 24, New Orleans (+8) 20; San Francisco 23, Carolina (+2) 17; Denver 31, San Diego (+9.5) 17; New England 30, Indianapolis (+7) 20.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, Louisville is welcoming back Bobby Petrino as its football coach. We’re talking about the guy who left town six months after signing a 10-year contract extension and later decided that the proper accessory on the back of a Harley was a blonde who wasn’t his wife. In a way, this is good news for college sports critics, who can now point to the exacta of Petrino and Rick “Quick Draw” Pitino as exhibit A of how sleazy the whole process has become. Good luck with that, Cardinals, and El Hombre will set the over/under on seasons before Petrino leaves town at 3.5. Here’s a tip: take the under…Now that the flood of underclassmen’s declaring for the NFL Draft has begun, we will be blessed with four months of mock selections that promote the event and generally have the same level of accuracy as Congressional budget estimates. Congratulations to the NFL for creating a big something out of practically nothing…In a related story, pro football teams had better pay close attention to the psychological profiles of the players in this year’s draft, the better to avoid choosing someone like Aaron Hernandez, who this week was named in a 2012 double homicide. That brings the total of murders in which he has been implicated to four. But, hey, the guy could really catch the football…The NBA has fined J.R. Smith 50 large for trying to untie the shoelaces of Detroit’s Greg Monroe, one game after Smith was warned for untying Shawn Marion’s shoes. What the league should do is make the nitwit sit in the corner for an entire game, the better to demonstrate his juvenile tendencies and shame him into acting like a professional. What’s next, trying to pants someone during a jump ball?...UTEP has dismissed three men’s basketball players for gambling, and the NCAA has suspended them from competition for at least a year. The players didn’t wager on any Miners games but did admit to betting that nobody would care that they were tossed off the team…In soccer news, the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers traded midfielder Walter Restrepo to the San Antonio Scorpions in return for “free lodging and transportation during Fort Lauderdale’s two road trips to San Antonio in 2014.” In a related story, the Jacksonville Jaguars tried to trade all of their players to anybody at all for a bag of used game socks…Reports from across the pond bring news that golfer Rory McIlroy proposed to tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki on New Year’s Eve. The wedding has been postponed, however, until one of them wins anything of consequence…Lance Armstrong insists that one of the reasons the USADA and other athletic governing bodies went after him so vigorously was that he “was a bigger a-hole” than others. Sounds about right. Self-awareness is a first big step toward getting better, Lance.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Now that the Eagles season has fizzled to an ending, and the off-season contract hysteria can begin, it’s time for Philadelphia fans to turn their attention to the Phillies and what could be a hugely disappointing season. (Hey, at least all the players are recognizable!) Before anybody throws or hits a pitch, however, there is the issue of Wednesday’s broadcasting team shakeup to address. Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews are out, victims of the team’s new 25-year, $2.5 billion deal with Comcast SportsNet, which now has editorial control over the team’s broadcasts. The topic here is not that Wheels can’t talk about “middle-in” pitches or Sarge won’t be “hopping into the Cadillac” anymore, but that Tom McCarthy will be the voice of the team heading forward. McCarthy is likeable and competent, but he is the broadcasting equivalent of a carnival barker, and his non-stop shilling for the team distracts from the game action. It’s one thing to be pro-Phillies and another to do work that would have been considered over the top by Pravda editors. It’s interesting that the Comcast folks took offense to Wheeler and Matthews while considering McCarthy the rightful heir to Harry Kalas. But that’s what happens when you wield the big checkbook.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: After the new Hall of Fame inductees were announced Wednesday afternoon (a big “tough luck” goes out to BALCO Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and the rest of the steroid crowd), it was revealed that ESPN host and Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard gave control his HOF ballot to the web site Deadspin, which directed him to vote for Bonds, Clemens and Jeff Bagwell, among others. Le Batard said that he was hoping to make a statement about the need for reform in the voting process, but he could have been far more eloquent by surrendering his right to choose than by giving Deadspin a promotional boost and sullying the Hall. Here’s hoping Le Batard is stripped of his privilege and looked at sideways by any team, league or school from which he asks for a credential. Journalists are supposed to report and comment on the news, not become the news. That’s a 101 level lesson and something Le Batard should consider the next time he wants to grandstand.

-EH-

Thursday, December 5, 2013

GETTING OUT WHILE THE GETTING'S GOOD

If NBA commissioner Uncle David Stern had even the smallest sense of humor, he would have walked out for one of the picks in last year’s NBA Draft – his last as a commissioner – wearing an oversized hunter’s cap and carrying a rifle. He would have tiptoed up to the microphone and said, “Be ve-wy qwiet. I’m hunting wabbits.” Then, he would have announced the next selection in perhaps the most disastrous Draft in history.

“With the eweventh pick in the 2013 NBA Dwaft, the Orwando Magic sewect Humpty Dumpty, center, fwom Ukwaine.”

Alas, Stern rides out of NBAtown on Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day that he took over the job. He is perhaps the greatest commissioner in American sports history and is responsible for remarkable growth in popularity and revenue of the world’s most important professional basketball league. He presided over the creation and nurturing of the star system, in which big names were promoted ahead of the teams for which they played, and helped open the global market with the unleashing of the Dream Team in 1992. Without Stern, we would not have had Dirk Nowitzki or Yao Ming. We wouldn’t have had Pavel Podkolzin or Nikoloz Tskitishvili, either. But there is always some collateral damage when people think big.

Yes, Stern accomplished a lot, and he will be turning things over to Adam Silver, who is said to think just like Stern, even if Silver looks like that really tall elf on “Rudolf”. If you ask El Hombre, Stern is getting out at the right time. The NBA may have robust TV contracts and can hawk T-wolves merchandise in Guangdong Province, but the play on the court is bad and getting worse. No matter how strenuously the league’s propaganda partners promote “The Association”, there is no escaping the fact that the product is experiencing some serious quality control problems.

Take the Eastern Conference…please. As of Thursday morning, there were two (2!) teams with winning records among the 15 in the three divisions. Things are so bad that the Washington Generals would be a four seed in the playoffs, and the bottom two squads are candidates for relegation to the Missouri Valley Conference.

It’s bad in the East but nowhere is it worse than in the Big Apple, where the Knicks and the Nets are waging a big-money race to the graveyard. Things are so bad in Broke-lyn that coach Jason Kidd’s best move all season came when he faked spilling a soda to get a timeout during a game last week. The problem was that he spoke to his team during the stoppage, thereby negating any advantage the Nets had gained by the chicanery. Team owner Mikhail Prokhorov selected Kidd to lead his luxury tax-strapped team, despite Kidd’s zero experience as an NBA coach. With decisions like that, one has to wonder how the big Russian became a billionaire. Oh, yeah, that’s right: the giddy days after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Jack Sparrow and Blackbeard would have seemed like altar boys.

While the Nets stink it up in the outskirts, the Knicks have flat quit in Gotham. Owner James Dolan is making all sorts of threats, but the fact remains that his people have populated the roster with a collection of hounds, led by CarMElo Anthony, whose selfishness makes Veruca Salt look like a philanthropist. It’s amazing to think that some team is going to bestow $20-25 million/year on him after this season.

And therein lies the problem. As long as media sycophants regard serial gunners like him as stars, the NBA will continue its slide into oblivion. The new players are better suited for the decathlon than the basketball court, and while everybody is waiting for the 2014 Draft to flood the league with a collection of saviors, the fact remains that the crop – while filled with potential – could be more hype than anything else. But that hasn’t stopped a third of the league from throwing away this season in the hopes of landing a superstar capable of transforming them from tomato cans to contenders.

Meanwhile, the big names (Mamba Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce) are getting older, and those charged with replacing them aren’t nearly as good. No matter how hard TV partners and advertisers work to convince fans that the new generation is worthy, eventually people are going to realize that it isn’t and that the quality of the game has suffered considerably. By that time, Stern will be sitting on a veranda somewhere with Bud Sellout and Paul Tagliabue, holding forth about how he was part of the scam that convinced everyone that Michael Jordan really wanted to play baseball. At some point in his story, the cell phone will buzz. Silver will be on the line, asking for advice. Stern will smile and choose the “dismiss” option.

You’re on your own, kid. Best of luck.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So the Spurs-Timberwolves game in Mexico City was postponed last night because of a nearby generator fire that made the arena unfit for athletic competition. El Hombre didn’t know Roger Goodell had anything to do with the NBA, too…Speaking of Commissioner for Life Goodell, the $100,000 fine for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, in the wake of his wild ride onto the field last Thursday night is okay, but taking away draft picks or dropping Pittsburgh in the order is silly. Tomlin’s actions did not change the outcome of the game and making him pay 100 large for his transgression is penalty enough. Don’t go overboard on this one, Commandante…School district officials in Manassas, VA are unapologetic about digging up a cemetery that dates back to the mid-1800s to make room for a new athletic complex that will include a football field. Citing redesign costs, the school refused to let the dead rest. They did, however, offer them season tickets in perpetuity…LeBron James is scheduled to star in a feature film with Kevin Hart. Hart plays a man who lives in the shadow of his basketball star brother (James) and uses a weekend at a fantasy camp to prove himself hoop-worthy. An NBA star in a movie? What could possibly go wrong? Kazaam, that’s what!...So, Robinson Cano started his free agent wrangling by saying he wanted $300 million. Now, he’s down to $200 mil, with the Mariners his only real suitor. Meanwhile, the Yankees are spending money on other players and might not have the appetite to go deep on Cano. Could it be that fiscal sanity is invading Majoke League Baseball? Naaahhhhh. Cano will dance with Seattle but will ultimately return to the Bronx for about $200 mil. Still, it’s fun to dream that era of stupid contracts – yes, I’m talking to you Desperate Angels of Orange County – might be over…The 2014 World Cup draw will be held Friday in Brazil, and U.S. fans are afraid of being put in a “Group of Death” with three difficult foes. But, don’t worry, soccer is just a couple years away from becoming as big in this country as it is everywhere else. Yes, and all the venues in Brazil will be ready in time for the Cup’s opening ceremonies. Get ready for a first-round match between Uruguay and Switzerland on a beach in Rio. Thongs for the players will be optional.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? A quick scan of the Inquirer’s pre-season boys basketball poll revealed a lot of the usual names – Neumann-Goretti, Imhotep, Chester, etc. – but the most interesting part of the survey was how many transfers the schools had, even the public schools. Remember when high school kids didn’t want to leave their friends for anything, even if it meant a chance at a better education or college destination? These days, top hoops players will switch sides every year if they have to, and coaches are charged with “keeping players happy”, in order to prevent them from bolting. College fans are bemoaning the huge number of transfers among D-I schools, but it seems to be worse at the prep level, where sophomores are not willing to play reserve roles and could transfer a couple times to find a favorable situation. Of course, sometimes the academic part plays into it, and players have to leave prep schools to find different levels of coursework or better support systems. The ball is good, but the merry-go-round aspect of it is unsettling, particularly if it starts spinning even faster in the future.

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AND ANOTHER THING: El Hombre is not allowed to reveal his preferences for the Mr. Stiff Arm Trophy, because the folks at the Heisman Trust warned him last spring that if he did it again, he would lose his privileges. Thus, mum’s the word. There isn’t a similar sanctity about the Baseball Hall of Fame voting, and as such, some cretin sold his ballot to Deadspin. The web site will let fans determine for whom the individual should vote, and he will behave accordingly. It seems this disgrace to the journalistic profession thinks the process is a sham and is protesting it. Well, why not register your disfavor by walking away, rather than selling out? The punk’s identity is secret right now, but once it is revealed – and it will be revealed – he should never be allowed to get a credential to a sporting event again, be it an MLB game or a grade school potato sack race. Let’s hope the journalism field treats him as the pariah he deserves to become.

-EH-